This video shows Itō Hiromi, a giant of contemporary Japanese literature, reading from one of her most important works, the long narrative poem “I Am Anjuhimeko” in which she recreates a spirit possession recorded in northeastern Japan in 1931. For a commentary, see below. A translation of the entire work appears in my book of translations Killing Kanoko: Selected Poems of Hiromi Itō (Action Books, 2009).
[Daughter] I am Anjuhimeko, three years old
In stories, it seems to me the person they refer to as father usually wasn’t around or was absence itself, no matter what story I happened to hear, the person called father would be dead in the house or out somewhere traveling or listening to whatever the stepmother was telling him to do, but in my house, there is someone called father, and he is intent on killing me, he is always doing his best to do so, but I don’t know what to do, I’ve had nothing but hardship since I was born
My father said this baby’s mouth is so monstrously big it seems to stretch all the way to her ears, her eyelids have folds in them, her face is flat, she’s got moles and birthmarks all over, her ears are big, big, big, something is wrong with her, it’s like she’s the freakish baby of some old priest, no way she’s mine, no way, I’ll call her Anjuhimeko, after those Anju—those lowly priests living in little cells for hermits—that’s what I’ll call her, and I’ll bury her in the sand, and if she can survive for three years then she can be my child
Something’s the matter with me, he says, look, I was born and here I am now, who cares if I’ve got one or two heads, who cares if I’ve got one or two hands, one too few or one too many? none of that really matters anyway, but that’s not what father says, he says let’s try burying her in the sand and waiting for three years, mother was willing to just go along with that, that was a big disappointment, but, well, here’s the problem, I’m just a newborn who can’t even see, and I can’t even utter a word to talk back, so I was wrapped in my mother’s silk underclothes and buried in a sandy spot near a river
Speaking of which, the sandy place near the river is the place where everybody buries their babies
To both the right and left of the place I was buried, there were so many buried babies that they jostled against each other, some were breathing, some weren’t, some had struggled partway out of the sand and then dried up, some had managed to escape all the way out of the sand and crawl away
Just crawl a little bit and there is a big bush, mosquitoes and flies sting any baby who tries to get there, but if they are able to escape from the fierce sun and take shelter from the rain and wind, they can pluck grass or leaves to eat, and if they manage to make it to the river, they can just go right in and live in the water, even though I was still buried in the sand, I watched the others around me, I watched the babies as they died, the ones who were already dead, and the ones who managed to survive and get away
[Mother] That’s right, how could anyone possibly have karma as bad as mine?
In only three years I gave birth to three children, but my husband buried one of the babies I’d gone to all the trouble to bear, he buried her in the sand, and now my swollen breasts are too much to bear, the holes in my breast where the milk should come out are plugged up, feverish, and swollen, just a simple touch and my breasts hurt so badly I think they’ll rip open, but between the pain in my breast and the sorrow at having my child buried, I spend every day weeping from dawn to dusk, and in the process of all this weeping, I have ruined my eyes, when that happened my husband said to me he didn’t want me in the house any longer because I’d gone blind, you’re the one who gave birth to the baby that wasn’t fit for anything except burial, no doubt you’ve got something deep and dark in your karmic past that made you give birth to that child and made you go blind, if you stay here, your deep, dark karma will rub off on me, so before that happens, do me the favor of dying or at least getting the hell out of the house, shit, I wish I could have buried you in the sand too, that’s what he said
Then, the next day, I check that the two children on my right and my left are still asleep, and I hold my breath as I quietly sneak out, I creep out of the house as quietly as I can, I’m going to dig a hole in the sand and hide myself in it, where was it that baby was buried? every day more and more people come to bury their babies so I don’t have any idea where mine is, I have no idea, but I dig a hole in the sand and bury myself in it anyway, and as I do so, the cries of the children reach my ears, I feel the faint warmth of the bodies of the buried babies, as long as I stay buried here in the sun, I can’t forget what has happened to me, if I’d known this was what fate had in store for me, I wouldn’t have obeyed my husband and buried the baby, that wasn’t a good idea, if things were all that bad, there must have been some other way, there must have been something I could’ve done, but no matter how much I regret it, no matter how much, no matter how much, no matter how much, it still isn’t enough, and I weep hysterically
When I look around, I see footprints in the sand, handprints in the sand, what are those? in them, I see the outlines of five toes and even the swirls of the prints of the individual toes, they’re the size of an adult’s feet – no, wait, here and there among the big prints are a couple of prints from a child’s foot, but there are only one or two of them, maybe those prints are Anjuhimeko’s, I see the patterns of fingers, several strands of hair, dried bloodstains, wet patches, many, many bodies of all different sorts, which of them belongs to her? I can’t say, does that handprint belong to her? could that footprint be hers? what about that fingerprint? is that strand of hair one of hers? when she was buried, the last thing I saw was her ear, a big, big, big ear, I could see the sand pouring into it so I took the hollow stalk of a reed and stuck it in the hole in her ear, and that was the last I saw of her, the hole was all filled in
Will my husband change his mind and come get me? what if he doesn’t? I don’t know, meanwhile, it seems as if I can hear the cries of the buried babies emerging here and there from the sandy patch of land, I don’t know, I feel what seems like the weight of a baby or something on my shoulders and on my back, it’s on my hands and arms, I feel as if I’m touching the children’s corpses, will my husband come or not? the stench of the babies reaches me every time the wind blows, I feel like the stench is accusing me every time the wind blows, if I’d known how things would work out, I would’ve gotten rid of the baby a long time ago when I was pregnant, that’s what I keep thinking to myself, but I didn’t and so that’s why these horrible things are happening to me, will my husband come or not? will he or won’t he? maybe he will and maybe he won’t, maybe he won’t, as I think these things to myself, the children accuse me and I feel their reproaches sink deep into my skin
And then I think that even if one was buried, two of my babies still remain, people keep telling me I should give up on her, I should give up on her, but even if I’ve given up on my buried baby, I still can’t give up on the husband who threw me out, buried here in the sand, all I can think about is whether or not he’ll suddenly change his mind and come take me away, that’s the only thing on my mind, dead child, go ahead and die, die, don’t look back, I want to live […]
[Daughter] Stories go fast in the telling, three years later, my father says, it’s the third anniversary of the day I buried Anjuhimeko, why don’t I try digging her up to see if she’s dead or alive?
And when he digs me up, here I am, I’m not dead, I haven’t dried up, I just warmed myself in the sand, a growing, a laughing, living body
Mother stuck the hollow stalk of a reed in the hole in my ear to mark where I was, so morning and night, I would suck the dew through the tiny, tiny, tiny hole in the stalk, and so I grew, a laughing, living body
That’s right, they dig me up and here I am, I’m not dead, I haven’t dried up, I just warmed myself in the sand, a growing, laughing, living body, mother stuck a stalk in the hole in my ear to mark me, morning and night I would suck the dew through the tiny, tiny, tiny hole, and here I am, a growing, laughing, living body, a growing, laughing living body, a growing, laughing, living body, that is what I am, that is who I am!
Many commentators have described Itō’s poems as “shamanistic,” in that they seem to channel voices that speak in stark, sometimes startling ways about the subjectivity and experiences of women. The long narrative poem I am Anjuhimeko is one of her most important works in this “shamanistic” style. In fact, in her public readings of this poem, she plays the part of a shamaness, creating the illusion that she is possessed by a spirit. While reciting it, she raps on a drum, table, or the floor to punctuate the narrative and draw attention to the rhythms embedded in the text.